An interview with the Summer Heights High writer/actor, whose latest series starts airing on HBO this weekend
On New Year's Day, Australian comic auteur Chris Lilley returns to HBO with his latest series, Angry Boys, the follow-up to his 2007 hit Summer Heights High. Filmed in Melbourne, Summer Heights High took viewers into the insular world of its eponymous high school, with Lilley playing three very distinct characters: private school transfer student Ja'mie King, megalomaniacal drama teacher Mr. G, and troubled delinquent Jonah Takalua, whose graffiti signature is a symbol of a penis.
Lilley's depth of characterization, his total immersion into characters at the axis of absurd and believable (something also seen in his first series, 2005's We Can Be Heroes), is at the core of the writer/actor's comedy. The 12-episode Angry Boys, which debuted on Australia's ABC1 in May 2011 and also aired this summer in the UK on BBC Three, continues the army-of-Lilley format, but looks outside of Australia, across international waters. If Summer Heights High took on high-schoolers, the new show sends up their idols. There is ficticious Japanese pro-skateboarder Tim Okazaki (Lilley plays Jen, his Tiger Mom-style manager whose marketing plan is centered around forcing her son to pretend to be gay); L.A rapper and Soulja Boy replicate S.mouse (Lilley, again, this time in blackface, which has led to some controversy). Rounding out the one-man-cast is its Australian contingent: testicle-deficient former pro-surfer Blake Oakfield, juvenile prison guard Ruth "Gran" Sims, and from We Can Be Heroes, twins Daniel and Nathan, whose story arc connects this far-flung group.
As Lilley's popularity grows, it follows that the universe of his shows would, too. But in playing characters from beyond Australia, has he overstepped his bounds? Speaking from Melbourne, Lilley discussed Angry Boys' cultural tensions, his creative process, and most famous fans.
This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.
Oh yes, that's true. I don't know. I suppose. It's been really taking off in Australia. People connected with it, and now we're really popular here. In Australia, it's like, people love that I'm local, and that I'm doing things that are about Australians. They don't really like to hear much about the international success. I try to talk about it in interviews but I find that the media here is not as interested in that aspect of it. I'm not sure why that happens. I can't think of any other Australian show that's been on HBO or had this kind of international recognition.
You really inhabit your characters so completely. What goes into developing them?
Well, the development of the characters in Angry Boys was interesting because I'd only played Daniel and Nathan before so I knew they were two of my favorite characters and I really wanted to bring them back. So they were sort of the anchor for the whole show. And then I really wanted to do a show that was on a big scale, like have international characters. And just because I'd already played a lot of characters, already I saw this as a chance to do something where I'm pushing things a little bit further. So for example, Jen is this outrageous, nasty mom, who's basically torturing her son and forcing him to be gay when he's not and all these awful things. A lot of the genesis of the characters was because it's my third series and I wanted to go really huge with it, and surprise people and keep it exciting. So developing the characters, I guess I just research. I try to meet similar types of people when possible. And I read a lot of stuff, I watch a lot of documentaries. I try to make sure their world is as accurate as possible. This show took a long time to write because it's so huge. It's 12 episodes with these five different worlds that were new and foreign to me. It took about a year for me to write the scripts, and then I guess in the writing process, that's when I become really familiar with the characters. By the time we get to shooting, I just know them so well just from having scripted them for so long. And then there's the stage where we develop the look of the characters, and we work with trying that a few weeks with make-up. The costume makes a huge difference. So by the time I go on set, there's been all this thought put into them, and they just kind of come to life, on set.
How was your experience shooting in Tokyo for some of the Jen story?
Yeah, we shot a lot of it in Melbourne and then we went to Tokyo and did some more stuff there, just to make it authentic. It was really cool 'cause we had a little crew and a lot of them are Japanese people and, you know it was funny because I'd already developed the character and we'd already shot some of it, and when we got there, I was thinking, actually Jen is nothing like a Japanese woman. She's quite a heightened version of it. I had this idea that being gay was popular in Japan, or it was like a cool thing, and when I got there, we shot some news footage, where this news reader had to talk about "GayStyle" and Tim taking over the world and stuff, and the translator said, "Oh, he won't say that. He won't talk about people being gay." I said, "What do you mean? That's part of it." And she was like, "Oh, it's a bit taboo in Japan to talk about people being gay. We just sort of ignore it." And she said, "Especially a news reader, he's not going to be able to say that." And somehow, I explained it, like, "Oh, it's not 'gay,' it's 'GayStyle,' like the company is called 'GayStyle,' it's fun." And they were like, "Oh, OK, we get it."
Who is your most popular character?
From Angry Boys, probably S.mouse, or maybe Daniel and Nathan. I just came back from the U.S.A. out of the airport and this guy was yelling out "S.mouse!" across the airport. And a lot of S.mouse songs are have dirty lyrics, and people will say, like, "Oh, can you sing that song, Grandmother Fucker?" But then also people recognize me a lot as the characters from Summer Heights High, and probably Mr. G would be the main one I get.